Yes and what if…?

In his best-selling biography, How to be like Walt, Pat Williams recounts the story of a father’s first visit to Disney World with his family. Towards the end of the holiday, he is asked what the real highlight of the trip has been. Given the many obvious attractions of the Magic Kingdom, the father’s instant response is an entirely unexpected one.

‘The best bit,’ he said, ‘was coming back to the hotel at night.’

At which point I can well imagine that there might be a number of sympathetic parents reading this who think they understand exactly what the poor man is getting at: after a gruelling day largely spent queuing among hordes of noisy, impatient and horribly over-excited children, who wouldn’t greet the return to the air-conditioned haven of the hotel with heartfelt relief? There might even be the prospect of a cold beer and the chance of eating something with a sugar content of less than 50%. But this particular father was simply being sincere:

‘My five-year-old daughter can’t wait to see what the maid does next with her dolls. One night, we found the dolls perched on the edge of the bathtub. Another night, the dolls were hanging from the light fixture. Last night, the maid fashioned a boat out of a big bath towel and the dolls were in the boat on my daughter’s bed.’

Setting aside the rather disturbing image of dolls hanging from light-fittings, this maid at a Disney resort hotel had found her own very individual way of expressing one of Walt’s most influential and enduring business concepts. She was plussing the holiday experience of a five-year-old. It’s already great – what if we added this?

Credited with coining the term, Walt Disney defined plussing as the willingness to take the extra step to make something even better: ‘It’s already great – what if we added this?’ It’s an idea that has been warmly embraced by the team that is seen by many as today’s most innovative and trail-blazing animation studio. Pixar can lay claim to no fewer than 15 Academy awards with worldwide hits including the Toy Story series, Finding Nemo and Inside Out.

In any animated film, a typical four-second scene requires about 100 frames. Skilled animators can put that together with a week’s worth of focused effort. At Pixar, an animator’s draft work is fed each day into a central network where other colleagues and the director can review it. The teams of animators then meet the next morning to review their previous day’s output and to offer a forensic critique.

This is where plussing has come into its own at Pixar. The overriding principle is that a concept can only be criticised if that criticism takes the form of a constructive suggestion for improvement. Pixar says the practice has been built on the core principles of improvisation: accept all offers, reject nothing; use ‘yes, and …’ instead of ‘yes, but …’ and remember that some measure of your success lies in making your partner look good. The objective is to critically – and rigorously – review existing work specifically in order to generate new ideas that build upwards and create something better.

It will come as no surprise that the majority shareholder in Pixar (and the primary beneficiary when it was eventually bought by Disney for $7.4 billion in 2006) was that arch exponent of plussing, Steve Jobs.

There are some invaluable lessons here for those of us who work in education. John Hattie has long argued that carefully structured feedback is one of the most effective interventions available to a teacher, placing it among the top ten influences on achievement. Unfortunately, he also maintains that research reveals that much of the feedback on offer in our classrooms is worse than useless, going so far as to claim that it can even do more harm than good. He points, for example, to one piece of research (Nuthall 2007) based on extensive classroom observation that revealed that 80% of verbal feedback comes from peers – and that almost all of it is wrong!

Many teachers believe that they give a great deal of valuable feedback, but much of this is directed at groups and research tells us that individuals often fail to recognise that group feedback applies to them. Even when feedback is aimed at a specific student, it can often be personal in nature, founded on a response to the human being in front of us rather than on an objective assessment of the task being undertaken. We also know that students frequently fail to understand teacher feedback or, worse, think they understand it when they do not. Giving is not the same as receiving.

Hattie’s view, based on a meta-analysis of a wide range of educational research, is that effective feedback focuses on three questions: Where am I going? How am I going? Where to next? In other words, students need to be guided towards a clear understanding of their goals, they then need to be helped to see what sort of progress they are making towards those goals (relative to past performance, to their peers or to an agreed set of expectations) before, finally, they are challenged to move on towards another objective, a deeper understanding or even higher achievement.

And what if…

And here we return to Disney and those highly-skilled animators at Pixar. As with our students in the classroom, much of their feedback comes from their peers; talented peers with a clear sense of where they want to get to and a good understanding of the steps they have to take in order to get there – and beyond. It doesn’t exercise the mind too much to see that in the wrong climate exposure to scrutiny from peers like these might so easily become intimidating, stifling.

That this isn’t the case and creativity thrives is attributable to the establishment of a shared culture of `imaginative risktaking and the wholesale adoption of the positive language of mutual aspiration. No one is likely to tell you how clever you are – but no one will dismiss even your wildest ideas as stupid. Praise will be hard-won and perfection will remain elusive. Yes and… instead of yes, but… What if… What if we could establish a culture like this in our classrooms?

This article originally appeared in the free June 2016 edition of  UKEdMagazine – Click here to view.

Having previously led schools in the UK, China and Singapore, Brian Christian is now in his fourth year as Principal of the British School in Tokyo and sits on the Board of the Council of British International Schools.

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About Brian Christian 11 Articles
Principal at the British School in Tokyo since 2012 and a Board member of the Council of British International Schools. A proud Manxman.

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